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Expanding SAEON's strategic role in ILTER

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON
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ILTER is increasingly recognised as an essential global research infrastructure.


Wim Hugo, SAEON’s Chief Data and Information Officer, has been appointed as chair of ILTER's Information Management Committee.


SAEON MD Johan Pauw serves on the ILTER Executive Committee as Chair of the ILTER Public Policy Committee. He is also SAEON’s voting representative on the ILTER Coordinating Committee.


In Taichung, small shop owners cultivate medicinal plants for private use on the pavement in front of their shops and next to their scooters.


Feng Chia night market in Taichung.

Taichung in Taiwan was an exotic venue in mid-October for the umpteenth annual business meeting of the International Long-Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER).

SAEON became an ILTER member in 2002, the year of SAEON’s formal establishment. That milestone was achieved on the back of a somewhat longer relationship between South Africa and ILTER.

Jim Gosz, the founding chair of ILTER, visited South Africa in 1996, lecturing around the country to promote the potential for a national LTER network. It was my job, as Foundation of Research Development Manager of the Sustainable Environment Theme, to organise his trip. Jim’s advocacy was well-received and so we slowly embarked on the route to SAEON’s establishment.

My first attendance of an ILTER business meeting was in 1998 in Florence, Italy, back-to-back with the International Association for Ecology (INTECOL) conference. Somehow Jim got me to invite ILTER to South Africa for their 1999 meeting. That really set the ball rolling because we used the opportunity to organise a South African symposium on the potential for an LTER network, back-to-back with the ILTER business meeting.

The South African meeting was well-attended by about 90 South African scientists and government representatives. About 30 ILTER delegates had the time of their lives in Kruger National Park where the meeting was held. Especially the Latin Americans among us pulled out all the stops in the evenings.

With the benefit of having global LTER network experiences on hand, the South African meeting was strategically organised around a few keynote presentations from the wide range of organisational models represented by the ILTER delegates. Those were followed by a few keynotes representing South African perspectives.

At the time, the South Africans decided that the USA LTER model would not work for us and that we should develop a distributed model with more directed central programme management, closer to how Canada’s National Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network (EMAN) was run.

A few meetings and documents later, and SAEON saw the light of day. Coincidentally, the new SAEON National Office is now located in Florence Street, Colbyn, Pretoria.

Today, SAEON is recognised as a leading member of ILTER. I personally serve on the ILTER Executive Committee as Chair of the ILTER Public Policy Committee and I am SAEON’s voting representative on the ILTER Coordinating Committee.

The ILTER Coordinating Meeting is the general members’ meeting and now happens two to three times a year, of which only one is a physical meeting, always hosted by a different member country. Other meetings are held via video conferencing to save costs and time. Whereas the other ILTER committees go about their business as they see fit, the Coordinating Committee ratify major policy directions and operational decisions.

As mentioned before, South Africa hosted the 1999 ILTER meeting in Kruger National Park. Recently, SAEON was once again honoured to host the all-important annual ILTER Coordinating Committee meeting in Kruger National Park, back-to-back with the first ILTER Open Science Meeting.

Taiwan meeting

At the start of this year's meeting, the ILTER Chair presented on progress with ILTER strategic planning, which was subsequently workshopped and discussed from the floor. The talk focused on the global role and positioning of ILTER, the need to remove inactive members, whether a whole-ecosystem approach is appropriate, how social-ecological research can be advanced, the impact and meaning of the proposed Global Environmental Research Infrastructure, how to deal with the tension between expectations raised in LTER promotion at various strategic levels “to deliver at the global level” to comply with funding structures/strategies for distributed national networks, as well as the tension between monitoring for research and monitoring for global environmental management, and whether there is a globally applicable model to integrate both aspects.

SAEON’s Chief Data and Information Officer, Wim Hugo, then presented a very well-received vision and strategy for ILTER information management. The DEIMS site registry was discussed by Christoph Whole.

My presentation on a plan for reinventing the Public Policy Committee to become more of a Partnership Liaison Committee interacting on behalf of ILTER with key global organisations of choice, such as the Group on Earth Observation (GEO) and Future Earth, was also passed for further development.

Two new cross-network research proposals were presented and discussed. Progress of existing projects were evaluated. The issue of standardised parameters was discussed in a separate session. The programme of the Second Open Science Meeting in Leipzig, Germany in 2019 was discussed. China’s proposal to host the 2022 Third Open Science Meeting was subsequently accepted.

Following the strategy workshop, both Wim Hugo and I were appointed to work on the editorial team of the ILTER 2030 strategy.

“Internal Balance”

In view of the major cultural and organisational differences between member networks, “Internal Balance” has become a hot topic within ILTER. The committee was sensitised to dealing more appropriately with diversity by breaking into small groups for reflection.

The ILTER Secretariat reported on administrative issues, including finances. An internal audit report was presented and the budget was finalised.

New ILTER chair designate

Most importantly, in accordance with its rules, the ILTER had to elect a chair designate to shadow the current chair for a year before taking over during the next ILTER Coordinating Meeting in Leipzig, after the Open Science Meeting. Hideaki Shibata from Japan was duly elected. Hideaki has formerly served as chair of the ILTER Science Committee and is also project leader of the Nitrogen Project.

A vacancy in the position of Information Management Committee Chair has arisen due to a retirement and I am pleased to announce that Wim Hugo of SAEON was duly elected.

Towards a bilateral agreement between TERN and SAEON

Wim and I were able to have positive side discussions with the Australians about establishing a formal bilateral agreement and activities between their Terrestrial Ecological Research Network (TERN) and SAEON. Our common ground is shared biomes in the Southern Hemisphere. The purpose of the bilateral would be to learn from one another, to look for synergies, to share approaches and expertise, and to join in lobbying when necessary.

By all accounts, ILTER is rapidly becoming an influential global environmental research organisation as it should be. Its status was boosted by its membership of GEO in 2017. It is also becoming recognised as an essential global research infrastructure as evidenced by the very recent financial injection from the European Commission’s H2020 programme awarded to a consortium of European ILTER members, titled eLTER to advance European LTER research infrastructures.

Readers interested in learning more about the ILTER organisation are encouraged to read the following paper: Mirtl, M., et al., 2018. Genesis, goals and achievements of Long-Term Ecological Research at the global scale: A critical review of ILTER and future directions. Science of the Total Environment 626:1439-1462

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